Jill Freedman, a tough-skinned photographer who immersed herself for months at a time in the lives of street cops, firefighters, circus performers and other tribes she felt were misunderstood, died Wednesday at a care facility near her home in New York. She was 79.
Nancy Schiffman-Sklar, a cousin, said the cause was complications of cancer.
Lots of people dream of running away and joining the circus, but Freedman actually did it, and created a body of images that captured the ache and solitude and weirdness of the American road at the point where, as she wrote, it “sings with the sinister energy of insane clowns.”
For Freedman, this energy was her muse.
In seven books and numerous gallery exhibitions and journalism assignments, she specialized in finding people on the rough margins of American life, rendering them as noble but not necessarily heroic. Even when her subjects were freakish or odd, Freedman never traded in oddity for its own sake; viewers might laugh with the characters, but not at them.
A chain smoker who liked to drink — she noted that the Lion’s Head bar in Greenwich Village closed at 5 a.m. — she found her stride in New York when the city was still mostly seedy, living her life and work as if she were auditioning for a role in one of her photos. A police siren, she said, meant that someone was playing her song.
“My friends and relatives know I’m nuts,” she told The New York Times about her total immersion in her subjects. “It’s obsessive. I want to tell the story and I want to get it right. God forbid I should make it easy on myself.”
Freedman was born in Pittsburgh on Oct. 19, 1939, the only child of Ross and Selma Freedman, a traveling salesman and a nurse. “She was a beautiful, beautiful girl,” another cousin, Marcia Schiffman (Schiffman-Sklar’s mother), said in an interview for this obituary in August. “But she was a little bit of a devil.”
Freedman traveled to Israel and England after college, eventually singing and playing guitar there to support herself. She moved to New York in 1964 and spent a couple of years working straight jobs in advertising that she disliked, until waking up one morning in 1966 with a desire to take photographs.
“I’d never taken a picture,” she said, “and I woke up wanting a camera.” She borrowed a friend’s camera to shoot an anti-war demonstration and kept on shooting.
After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, she took up residence in a plywood shantytown erected in Washington by the Poor People’s Campaign, which he had organized. There she took photos that landed her in Life magazine and produced her first book, “Old News: Resurrection City,” in 1971. Like the work that followed, the images were part documentary, part activism.
“Woody Guthrie had his guitar that said this machine kills fascists,” she said. “I’d love to do that with a camera.”
New York in the 1970s was spiraling into chaos, and Freedman embraced what she called the theater of the streets — “the weirder the better,” she said.
Marcia Schiffman said that Freedman was driven alternately by anger and “a love for humanity, wanting to save the world.”
For two years she attached herself to firefighters in the tinderboxes of Harlem and the South Bronx, sleeping in firehouses or the chief’s car. Often the only woman in these environments, she was able to capture men behaving in ways that they might not have in front of a male photographer, said filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, who included Freedman in her documentary “Everybody Street,” about street photographers. “She had really macho guys like cops and firemen letting down a facade.”
In one photo, Freedman caught two firemen, apparently having survived a mission, sharing a cathartic kiss.
Freedman said that in her work she tried to disappear into the background.
“I put a lot of time into being invisible,” she said. “When I was a kid, I always wished I had one of those rings or cloaks that made you invisible. Then I realized years later, I am invisible behind a camera. I am a camera.”
Other series followed, including her work with street cops, who she thought were being unfairly maligned. It was a violent world, and she was determined to show the violence in a way not seen in movies and television shows.
“I set out to deglamorize violence,” she said.
The work never brought her much money, nor the fame enjoyed by some of her male peers, said Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator emerita of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “I don’t think she got her due at the time,” Tucker said in a phone interview in August. “She didn’t have that support group that a lot of photographers have. And we all need that.”
Freedman’s work and health both tailed off in the 1980s. With no health insurance, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1988 and later broke her pelvis. She moved to Miami in 1991 and shot a series there on local strippers, but she was no longer as motivated as she had been, Marcia Schiffman said.
Freedman returned to New York, to an apartment in Harlem, and talked in recent years about compiling one more photo book, to be called “Madhattan.” It would be a tribute to a wild, messy, psychotic, remarkable city that she had missed terribly.
“We used to have a great brand of crazies,” she said.
Freedman was their photo booth.